22nd Sunday Ordinary Time B Sept. 3, 2006

Homily — 22nd Sunday OT B September 3, 2006

angry pharisees

All these evils come from within, and they defile a person. But, Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God.

This is the central message of the whole New Testament of Jesus Christ, an interior conversion of heart which leads a person to exterior works of mercy.

Purity, or cleanness, of heart was also the central message of the Old Testament. We see this over and over again in the writings of the Prophets, and especially in the Psalms.

Today’s Psalm, for example, says The one who does justice, who thinks the truth in his heart, will live in the presence of the Lord. Also, Psalm 51: A clean heart create for me O God, and Psalm 139: O test me God and know my heart, see that I follow not the wrong path, are two other examples of the kind of purity of heart God called the Israelites to in the Old Testament.

St. James in the 2nd Reading calls this purity of heart Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus meets up with a group of religious-looking people who just don’t understand what true religion should be about: the Pharisees.

The Pharisees over-emphasized the legal and ritualistic aspects of the Old Testament and under-emphasized its spiritual and moral aspects. The Old Testament had many laws, found in the Bible, which are called ceremonial precepts: laws that dealt with keeping holy the sabbath, laws on how to offer sacrifices, dietary laws on what foods were clean to eat and what foods were unclean, and finally ritual laws regarding other things or actions which made a person unclean, and rules corresponding to these which purified the unclean person.

These Ceremonial Precepts of the Old Law didn’t deal with right and wrong, good and evil. God gave them to the Israelites in addition to the moral law of the Ten Commandments as a reminder for them and as a sign to others that they were a people God had set apart from all nations to be His Chosen People.
Moses in the first reading warned the Israelites not to add or subtract to these laws. But the Pharisees of Jesus’ day not only added to them, they multiplied these ceremonial laws of outward purity, creating hundreds of new additional laws, not found in the Old Testament. And in doing so, they subtracted greatly from its main message of inward purity of heart.

It’s no wonder that the Pharisees had a hard time with Jesus, who as Son of God did away with all the Old Testament ceremonial precepts: His one perfect sacrifice on the Cross fulfilled all the Old Testament sacrifices, His Resurrection on Easter Sunday ushered in the new Lord’s Day of Rest. And from now on, Baptism into Christ is what sets the People of God apart as God’s chosen people, not adherence to ritual purity laws.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had an especially hard time with all this because, as Christ says of them, Their hearts are far from me. The Pharisees were pure on the outside, but not on the inside.

Now, the Pharisees went to the extreme of making religion an end in itself. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus was against the outward practice of religion by His disciples. Religion is an essential tool we must use in order to cleanse our hearts of evil thoughts, unchastity, greed, malice, pride and all the other evils Jesus says defile us from within.

For the only way to get clean of all these things is to turn to God and ask Him to create a clean heart in us, which He certainly will. But it won’t be long before we defile our hearts again with folly, blasphemy, envy, deceit or some other evil, so we’ve got to go back to God again and again.

And this is what external religion is all about. Vocal prayers, organized weekly Mass attendance, hanging pictures of Jesus and the Saints in our homes, frequent spiritual reading are all meant to help keep us pure of heart, to remind us of our duty as Christians towards God and neighbor, and to remind us of the heavenly reward which awaits those who follow Jesus in this life.
So there’s nothing at all wrong with being religious, in fact, being religious is virtuous and not being religious at all is objectively sinful. But all our external religious actions, to be virtuous, need to be a reflection of the inner desire to serve Jesus with a pure heart in the world.

A great contemporary example of a very religious person, who was as exteriorly as religious as the Pharisees, but who never lost sight of the true meaning of religion, is Blessed Theresa of Calcutta.

Mother Theresa, who each day went to Mass, said the Rosary, and did a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, once said “People say they admire my courage. I answer them that I wouldn’t have any courage if I were not convinced that each time I touch the body of a leper, I touch the same Christ I receive in the Eucharist.” In other words, Mother Theresa knew she would be a hypocrite like the Pharisees if after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion she didn’t go out and help the poor.

Her outward practice of religion gave her the grace to have a heart clean of sin, a heart Christ was able to fill with a deep love for the poorest of the poor.

May the same Jesus, who comes now to us in this Eucharist, help us understand more fully the meaning of that Beatitude which is most central to our Catholic Religion: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

Comments are closed.